The true conspiracy?

August 25th, 2017 by Giangiacomo Bravo

Despite the title, I don’t usually believe in conspiracies. Chemtrails, NASA hiding aliens’ corpses, Big Pharma spreading AIDS to sell drugs (or, vice-versa, hiding universal remedies) are just modern versions of angel visions and miraculous healings (if interested in the topic, have a look at Carl Sagan’s classic book “The Demon-Haunted World”). Still, reading Wynes and Nicolas’ recent article showing how the actions to reduce individual CO2 emissions having the highest potential are systematically missing from the ones listed in schoolbooks and government recommendations on climate change, I must confess that I had some bad toughs.

What are these actions and how Wynes and Nicolas found them? The two authors first compiled a literature review of several possible actions to reduce energy consumption and mitigate climate change through individual actions. Then, for each of them, they computed how much a person’s emissions would be reduced each year if adopted given the prevailing conditions and technology in various countries. Their results are summarised in the Figure below:

The figure shows that choosing to have fewer children, not having a car, and avoiding to fly (especially long-haul flights) are the most effective action to reduce individual emissions, with the first one that is at least 20 times more effective than anything else you can do. By looking a the figure, it is also clear that the usually promoted measures, say buying a hybrid car or changing your light bulbs, are among the least effective ones. In practice, a US citizen choosing to have one fewer child could reduce emissions over 100 times more than by replacing her/his gasoline car with a hybrid one and 1000 times more than by replacing all the house light bulbs with LED ones.

The authors took their analysis one step further and surveyed the actions promoted in Canadian textbooks and in information reports edited by the EU, USA, Canada and Australia governments. The surprising result was that these sources largely fail to mention the high-impact actions, while focusing their recommendations on the ones having the lowest potential for emission reduction.

That’s where the idea of a conspiracy started to germinate in my mind. By looking closer at the high- and low-impact action groups a pattern emerges: low-impact actions usually imply to buy new products (cars, light-bulbs, etc.), high-impact ones to avoid having, doing, or eating things (cars, flights, meat, etc.), which is not really surprising as “not doing” something reduces to zero the corresponding emissions while “doing it differently” can, at best, decrease them. And here’s the conspiracy. Governments’ main interest, after all, is to promote economic growth. The goal of companies (by definition) is to make money and grow. This is best achieved at the macro-scale by increasing population and consumption: but that’s exactly the opposite of what most high-impact measures will do. So better to forget them and promote lower-impact, economic-growth-enhancing ones. That’s the very idea of the green-economy after all!

Now a (second) confession: I don’t really believe that an explicit conspiracy exists, nor Wynes and Nicolas suggest that. Governments do promote economic growth, of course, but that’s just one of the strongest requests from the citizens. A recent Eurobarometer survey shows that the economic situation, public finance, and unemployment are among the top-5 issues for EU citizens (just after terrorism and immigration), while climate change only ranks 8th and the environment in general 10th. Limiting the family size or reducing meat consumption are very unpopular measures indeed, often contrasted by well-organised lobbies (think about religious groups, for instance). So why should democratic governments promote them against the will people? In short: no conspiracy, just democracy. What’s wrong in that?

The problem is that people’s will can be myopic and, more specifically, that the current policies won’t prevent a major increase of Earth’s average temperature (most likely 3°C or more above pre-industrial time). Nevertheless, high-impact unpopular measures are not promoted while the focus shifts to low-resistance ineffective alternatives. On the one hand, little is better than nothing: so better one more LED bulb than a failed attempt to promote vegan diets against the people’s will. On the other, doing low-cost action allows people to live better with their conscience (in psychological terms: to reduce their cognitive dissonance), which unfortunately prevents them to change their behaviour in more effective, but difficult, ways. These same people often accuse distant politicians or big corporations (or whatever your favourite target is) to conspire to defend their interests at the expenses of climate change. That’s easy to do and helps feel better. Much harder is to recognise that government and corporations may well try to influence the process, but individual choices are what really matters. And these are not easy to change.

In short, we are facing a world where choices at all levels tend to converge towards low-cost, ineffective measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Institutions, following the people’s will, seem to go along with that and have given up – if they ever tried – with the attempt to promote more effective actions. All basically hope that technological change will occur fast enough to fix things at an acceptable cost. Nevertheless, technology – although useful – cannot make miracles. At the end, all that reminds me too much of Garrett Hardin’s famous Tragedy of the Commons model where participants, each pursuing his/her best self-interest, end up destroying their commons (climate stability in our case). No conspiracy, but no nice prospect either!

Giangiacomo Bravo on Twitter
Giangiacomo Bravo
Professor at Linnaeus University, Växjö. Doing research in environmental and computational social sciences.

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